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How the 1970s Revolutionized the Art of Photography

How the 1970s Revolutionized the Art of Photography

A new online exhibition by PDNB Gallery explores how photographers working in the 1970s transformed not only the language of photography, but invented new ways of seeing the world.

“Photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all,” celebrated writer Susan Sontag asserted in On Photography, a collection of polemical essays published in the New York Review of Books between 1973 and 1977. “Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made….Out of photography, one can make passport pictures, weather photographs, pornographic pictures, X-rays, wedding pictures, and Atget‘s Paris. Photography is not an art like, say, painting and poetry.”

House & Car by William Christenberry
House & Car, Near Akron, Alabama © William Christenberry, Courtesy PDNB Gallery, Dallas, TX
We really enjoy getting together by Bill Owens
We really enjoy getting together, 1971 © Bill Owens, Courtesy PDNB Gallery, Dallas, TX

Although Sontag later partially refuted positions established in the book, her initial impulse to enforce arbitrary hierarchies in art is as commonplace as it is trite. Since its invention in 1839, gatekeepers of the art world have resisted including photography within its hallowed halls; perhaps it was too commercial, too practical, or simply too democratic for the cultural elite to accept, let alone embrace, as an object to which they could attach exorbitant price tags. 

Despite its long-standing marginalization, photography underwent a radical shift in the 1970s, catapulting it into the realm of fine art. Under John Szarkowski’s direction, the Museum of Modern Art staged a series of seminal exhibitions and wrote the landmark 1973 book, Looking at Photography, which reframed conventional notions of the relationship between photography and art. Recognizing that photography was not invented to serve a specific purpose, Szarkowski understood that its inherent plasticity of purpose made it the perfect medium for use by artists from all walks of life.

I enjoy giving a Tupperware party in my house by Bill Owens
 I enjoy giving a Tupperware party in my house, 1971 © Bill Owens, Courtesy PDNB Gallery, Dallas, TX
Sabrett Hot Dog Vendors by Neal Slavin
Sabrett Hot Dog Vendors, New York, NY, 1974 © Neal Slavin, Courtesy PDNB Gallery, Dallas, TX

“Art is anything you can get away with,” Andy Warhol quipped. Using the photograph as the basis for his infamous acts of appropriation, Warhol pushed populist processes and archetypes to the forefront of the avant-garde in the 1950s and ‘60s, priming the art world for a revolutionary new generation of photographers who took the 1970s by storm.

Welcome to the Party

The online exhibition, The 1970’s, celebrates the luminaries who transformed not only the language of photography but invented new modes of functionality. While photographers Ed Ruscha, Robert Adams, Bill Owens, and Lee Friedlander invited us to look at the modern American landscape in all its glorious mundanity, artists like Ana Mendieta, Christo, John Baldessari Marina Abramovic and Ulay, brought photography to the edge, blurring the lines between art, performance, and documentation. 

Untitled by Garry Winogrand
Untitled, from Women are Beautiful Portfolio, 1965-75 © Garry Winogrand, Courtesy PDNB Gallery, Dallas, TX
Bus People by Barbara Crane
 Bus People, 1975 © Barbara Crane, Courtesy PDNB Gallery, Dallas, TX 

At the same time, color photography began to become recognized in its own right, breaking through the barrier posed by the establishment in an attempt to eradicate evidence of commercial and amateur practices. Here, the works of Lucas Samaras, William Christenberry, and Neil Slavin reveal the challenges that color added to the form, requiring the photography to harmonize hues so that they enhance, rather than distract or overwhelm, the experience of the scene. 

As the boundaries around photographic genres began to melt, becoming stale conventions of modernist thought, artists like Jeffrey Silverthorne, Larry Fink, and Danny Lyon redefined notions of documentary photography. More than mere storytelling, their images became art, artifact, evidence, and testimony. They could operate within multiple spaces simultaneously, maintaining more that just one use, while preserving the notion that art is a sacred object unto itself. 

By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

Denise Hustling, outside of Homestead Cade by Jeffrey Silverthorne
Denise Hustling, outside of Homestead Cade, Providence, RI, 1972 © Jeffrey Silverthorne, Courtesy PDNB Gallery, Dallas, TX
Miss USA Contestants by Neal Slavin
Miss USA Contestants, 1973 © Neal Slavin, Courtesy PDNB Gallery, Dallas, TX

The 1970s
Online at PDNB Gallery through February 28, 2021 
See it here.

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